Role changed on return from maternity leave: ask the expert

I am returning to work from maternity after taking Additional Maternity Leave. Whilst I was on my keep in touch days the directors had a meeting with both myself and my maternity cover to inform us that there will be some management changes. Although my title will be similar they have taken aspects of the job I enjoy away and have given it to my maternity cover and they have also added duties of a different organisation to my role. Essentially I’ll be managing two sites but this will be more admin related i.e hr, payroll staff training etc and the more interesting organisational aspects have been given to my maternity cover. This was raised informally in the first instance where I raised my concerns and I was promised that they will look at my concerns before drawing up the official proposal. The official proposal has been made and the role is still the same and they did not take into account my concerns. I have written back saying I could not accept the position as I feel it will hinder my career development and that it is essentially a demotion. I know the law states that I have to return to the same role as long as it’s reasonably practicable. Is it right for them to take some aspects of my role away and give it to my maternity cover then give me an additional sister company to run? Your advice would be appreciated.

You are indeed entitled to return from maternity leave to the same role on the same terms and conditions as the position you had before having your baby, unless there is some reason (other than redundancy) whereby it is not ‘reasonably practicable’ to return to your old job. In such circumstances your employer would have some flexibility in offering an alternative role, provided it is suitable and on no less favourable terms than your old job.

It appears that your employer has changed your job role to include work which is not only less favourable than your original post, but have also given aspects of your original job to your colleague covering you maternity leave. This is likely to be unlawful.

In the case of Stelfox v Westco Building Components Ltd, the Employment Tribunal held that a similar scenario to your own was a breach of the Maternity Regulations. In that case the employer hired a temporary maternity leave replacement for the claimant. He proved so good at his job that they made him permanent before the claimant returned to work. They then offered the claimant another job at the same rate of pay.

The Employment Tribunal ruled that the employer had not demonstrated that it was not reasonably practicable to give the claimant her job back and had failed to even consider whether she should be offered her old job. A preference for an employee employed on maternity cover to perform your role (or certain parts of your job) is unlikely to be sufficient justification to change your existing position. It is also likely that giving important parts of your role to your maternity cover will constitute unlawful discrimination on grounds of maternity.

Employment law provides considerable protection for women both during pregnancy and thereafter and your employer cannot discriminate against you as a direct result of your pregnancy or taking maternity leave. In order to defend a discrimination claim, your employer would have to prove that their decision to change your remit to include more menial tasks, was not linked in any way to your being on maternity leave.

I would recommend seeking specialist legal advice as soon as possible to ensure the best outcome in your circumstances if your employer’s current position remains unchanged.

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